Getting to know the PSO

After the sold-out opener last weekend, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) is sawing, bowing, and tooting its way to another season of great performances, great personalities, and of course, great music. To hear these musicians live is a treat; to get to know their thoughts on conductors, repertoire, collaboration, and the art of making music is just as rewarding.

This season’s program includes a variety of music for all tastes: a number of classical blockbusters, Broadway favorites, pop tunes, and everything from film scores to excerpts from Wagner’s operas. Offering such a broad repertoire, the PSO is sure to please a range of audiences, but what about the performers?

PSO concertmaster, Grammy-nominated artist, and Carnegie Mellon violin professor Andrés Cárdenes enjoys, in his words, “virtually every piece I play or conduct.” Cardenes is especially eager to play Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and Respighi’s “Feste Romane,” and to conduct Hindemith’s “Music for Strings and Brass.” In the spirit of musical collaboration, he is also looking forward to Elgar’s “Cello Concerto” with colleague and friend Anne Martindale Williams, the principal cellist for the PSO and an artist lecturer at Carnegie Mellon. A multifaceted musician of many extensions — orchestral, solo, chamber — Cárdenes is also growing in demand as a conductor; this season he will conduct a Pittsburgh Symphony Chamber Orchestra performance in late March, in addition to the late April concert of Hindemith and Schumann’s Third Symphony**.

The PSO is entering a transitional year, leading to a new music director for the 2008–09 season, Manfred Honeck. Thus, the repertoire this season is more generalized with a variety of conductors taking the podium, including notable names such as Sir Andrew Davis, Marek Janowski, and Yan Pascal Tortelier.

“Adjusting to conducting styles is a combination of playing the way we think things ought to go ... while keeping our eyes and ears open for balances and musical direction coming from the podium,” explained Robert Lauver, a member of the horn section and an artist lecturer in the School of Music.

As the performer’s primary goal is to interpret the emotions and ideas of the music in a convincing manner, the leadership and charisma of a conductor is essential. “Conductors vary widely in conducting style — some are easier to follow than others,” Lauver said. “The best ones have a nice combination of stick technique for ensemble precision and musical drive and inspiration.”

Nancy Goeres, another Carnegie Mellon artist lecturer and the PSO’s principal bassoonist, looks for “the depth of musicianship” in a conductor. “The better the conductor, the easier it is to adjust,” she said.

“Ours and their success depends on establishing a good rapport and chemistry,” Cárdenes added.

In addition to performing, Cárdenes, Lauver, and Goeres enjoy teaching in the studio. Since a good number of students are preparing for careers in orchestral performance, a professor’s PSO experience is invaluable. Goeres said, “[When students] have the opportunities to hear me play in the orchestra [they can] hear for themselves if I practice what I preach.”

“Hopefully my students learn that playing the horn well is extremely rewarding, both in the journey ... and to see in our accomplishments how far we’ve come,” Lauver said.

Echoing that sentiment, Cárdenes finds that sharing his experiences and knowledge with young violinists is extremely fulfilling. He said, “It shows that in the music profession, no one ever stops learning or striving to be as fine an artist as possible.”